I wrote this piece in 2014.
As we approach the centenary of the beginning of WWI, it perhaps may be a good time to check if the lessons of the past have been learned by many of its protagonists. Specially those that lost.
To recap. On November 11, 1918, after 4 years of conflict, the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire conceded defeat to the Allies, ending a war of 9 million dead and immeasurable destruction. But the Allies proceeded to implement the Treaty of Versailles, a draconian document that led to the ruin of Germany. Several economists, most important of all, John Maynard Keynes, spoke of the strong measures of such a treaty and how they would humiliate Germany in an uncalled for way. And from the ashes of the WWI the seed for WWII sprung.
A rather unknown soldier of Austrian birth began, a few years later, to rise as a political figure in Germany. Adolf Hitler, stoking nationalism and Germany’s right to be a world power, was eventually elected chancellor of the country, evoking strong feelings of patriotism and, if truth be told, recovering Germany’s industrial and military strength to its previous levels. The world looked idly as this former soldier began executing a plan to restore Germany to its former glory by inciting a feeling of superiority by the Arian race, based on the faulty and tragically flawed pseudo science of Eugenics. He eliminated all opponents within Germany, consolidating the Nazi party as the sole political force in the country and therefore getting rid of all voices of reason in Germany. In 1936 the world joined meekly at Berlin to watch Hitler bask in the glory of the Olympic Games, games which were not boycotted by any nation under a policy of Appeasement mainly proposed by Neville Chamberlain, a British politician that became Prime Minister of the UK from 1937 through 1940. Hitler used a blatantly racial and discriminatory persecution of a minority (the Jewish population of Germany) as a glue to gel Germany nationalistic feelings, coupled with a nurturing of strong, manly rhetoric (remember that Germany is a “Fatherland”, in opposition to most countries’ use of the maternal theme of “Motherland”), all of which was done under the conspicuous silence of the Catholic Church, with whom Germany had signed the Reichskonkordat, the most lucrative agreement between the Holy See and any country (at the time). This eventually led to the annexation of the German-populated region of Sudentenland (Czechoslovakia) under the terms of the Munich agreement (signed by Chamberlain) and to Kristallnacht on Nov 9-10 1938. Finally, Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, forcing the UK and (reluctantly) France to declare war on Germany, starting World War II. 85 million deaths later (the top estimate) the world seemed to come back to its senses, with the Axis defeated and the world in ruins.
If all this sounds familiar (apart from the fact that if you have not heard of WWII you really should consider coming out of your cave) it is because it is. Look at Russia today, and see the similarities.
Russia (then the USSR) lost the Cold War in 1991. It too suffered great losses, mainly the fragmentation of its huge territory and a fall from grace as a world superpower. From the ashes of that technical defeat, a rather obscure figure has emerged: Vladimir Putin, former head of the defunct KGB, climbed the political ladder stoking strong nationalistic feelings. He has cultivated an image of machismo and manliness, with his frequent photographs of himself riding horse bare-chested. It is no secret that Putin feels that Russia has to be a world class power, ranking 8th in GDP but a rather non-impressive 58th in Per Capita income. He has eliminated all political opposition in Russia and he also, extremely recently, got his wish to stage “his” Olympic Games. And perhaps more telling, Putin has engaged in a cruel and blatant campaign of racism and violent discrimination of a minority group, the LBGT community of Russia, all under the approving eyes of the Orthodox Church, with which Putin has an excellent relationship. Last, but not least, remember that Russia invaded portions of Georgia, a small adjacent and independent republic, under the claim that those regions had Russian ethnicity and therefore Russia would defend Russian citizens in South Ossetia (today still controlled by Russia) if they were attacked. All this has been done under the appeasing eyes of the West and, conveniently forgotten by the American GOP, the non-feckless eyes of George W. Bush.
Now Russia has invaded a neighboring country. And make no mistakes: this is just a beginning. Europe, weary of so many years of wars in the last century and always looking inwards and not caring for what happens anywhere else in the world as long as it does not affect them, is debating on what to do with Putin. Or how to do it. Or even of whether to do something. Crimea is gone, bullied into becoming Russia, and Putin will gloat on the slow but verifiable expansion of Mother Russia. The countries in its periphery (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia and others) should look at this move with extreme care and worry. Because Putin is the simplest of all creatures: a bully, a coward that orders the assassination of a former spy by poisoning him with Polonium, a tough macho man that ignores the brutalization of gay men and orders the arrest of three silly young women that do not agree with his policies. And the mistake that the West is making is to believe that such a man can be brought back to his senses by talk and dialogue. Bullies are never appeased. Bullies understand only one language, because it is the language they speak.
There is a simple axiom in martial arts (Putin is a black belt in Judo): avoid confrontation. But if confrontation is not avoidable, hit first, and hit hard. If done well, it will be the sole punch thrown. Putin has crossed many lines in the recent past, the last one being his support of the Syrian regime, something for which the West did nothing. And if Crimea goes, Putin will not stop there. Ukraine is next, or at least, east Ukraine. And if this is the case, some countries should start worrying. Poland, for example, can rightfully say they have seen this movie too.
It is ironic that this time around, Germany, a country that after WWII became peaceful to the point of caricature, sits in the non-enviable position of having to make the call. The U.S. cannot. Too far away, and loaded with an atomic arsenal a deadly as Russia’s, it cannot fight a war so far from its shores, on a separate continent, without Europe’s full involvement. China will wait and see, caring not at all for Crimea and “those Europeans” but watching carefully for opportunities to expand its own power. So, in a twist of history that is ironic, it is up to Germany and Chancellor Merkel to decide if appeasement will work this time (it will not) or if unfortunately, 2014 will signal the start of another global scale conflict.